WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- It's not exactly a surprise, but it's important news anyway. Russia's new President Dmitry Medvedev has pledged to maintain the top-priority modernization of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces designed to be able to swamp America's ballistic missile defense systems.
Speaking in the town of Teikovo in the Ivanovo region 150 miles northeast of Moscow Thursday, Medvedev, the hand-picked successor of two-term president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, promised to maintain whatever-it-takes funding for the SMF, which already is the only ballistic missile nuclear force in the world with the capability to swamp all current and planned U.S. ballistic missile defense systems.
"Our task for the next few years will be to secure necessary funding for the SMF, which must be able to face the current level of threats and the global situation," Medvedev said while visiting the 54th Strategic Missile Division, RIA Novosti reported.
Medvedev's comments and the speed with which he made it, just eight days after being sworn in as Russia's third post-communist president, are extremely important developments. They confirm that, however more "liberal" Medvedev may sound compared with his predecessor Putin, when talking about concepts of the rule of law or the importance of modernizing Russia, he shares his predecessor's determination to upgrade the Strategic Missile Forces.
Cost is certainly not an issue. Under Putin, Russia became the world's second-largest oil exporter and its largest oil and natural gas combined energy exporter. Last week, world oil prices spiked at an unprecedented almost $127 a barrel. And thanks to Putin's guidance, Russia is now even well placed to eventually replace Saudi Arabia as the world's key swing producer.
Enjoying this energy revenue windfall, Putin poured huge sums into the biggest modernization, replacement and upgrade program the Strategic Missile Forces had seen in more than a quarter of a century, since before glasnost, perestroika and the collapse of communism.
There have been major problems and delays in getting this program implemented by the recovering but still often inefficient Russian military-industrial complex. But it has shown real results as well. RIA Novosti noted that at the end of last year, Russia had deployed within the SMF 48 silo-based and three mobile Topol-M missile systems.
The news agency also noted that the Topol-M has a 7,000-mile operational range and has been designed to be able to evade current and future U.S. ABM defenses.
The Topol-M has the capability to maneuver in flight to escape any anti-ballistic missile terminal phase interceptors fired at it and is also equipped with a formidable arsenal of targeting countermeasures and decoys.
Further, the Topol-M, its Russian designers say, has been insulated against damage from radiation, electromagnetic pulse or nuclear attack. And with its solid-fuel propellant, its fuel tanks cannot be detonated by a hit from any lasers currently in operational use or due to enter service in the near future.
RIA Novosti said the 54th Strategic Division, which Medvedev visited, currently operates three road-mobile systems that became operational on Dec. 12, 2006.
The news agency quoted the SMF commander, three-star Col.-Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, as saying the division will be deploying its full operational force of Topol-Ms by 2010. It said the SMF was currently deploying about three mobile and three to four fixed-site Topol-M ballistic missile systems every year.
At first, the Topol-M's Achilles heel was that it had only a single warhead and was not equipped with a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle such as the old RS-20 -- NATO designation SS-18 -- has carried for decades.
However, RIA Novosti quoted Solovtsov as earlier pledging that Russia's entire Topol-M ICBM force will be re-equipped with MIRVs within the next two to three years.
The meaning of Medvedev's pledge to the 54th Strategic Missile Division is clear: No shift in military priorities or change in strategic policies will be allowed to slow down or derail the modernization of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces. All future U.S. strategic assessments under the next president -- be he John McCain or Barack Obama -- will have to be made with that fact foremost in mind.